The Flawed and Corrupted Genius of American Republicanism

15 Oct

Trump as President makes us think as never before about viability of the American version of constitutional democracy, that is, the ‘republic’ that Ben Franklin promised the people at the time of Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia.

We often forget that Franklin replied to the question by adding several words, “if you’ll keep it.”

With the election of Trump in 2016 these prophetic cautionary words have come home to haunt the country with a cruel vengeance. Of course, arguably nuclear America had long abandoned the pretense of consensual government, and warmongering American had driven the point home with only a whimper of dissent from Congress, mainstream media, and the citizenry. Imagine currently engaged in bombing six countries and combat operations in many more, and the loudest sound from the citizenry or media is an all-encompassing silence. And then we must not forget about the potent ‘deep state’ that took shape during World War II, maturing and consolidating its hold on elected officials during the long Cold War. Or, I suppose, its more visible presence that Eisenhower warned about in his Farewell Address—the military-industrial complex (as abetted by a corporatized media and a wide array of cheerleading think tanks).


Yet Trump poses the challenge more bluntly, so crudely that many of us feel we can no longer sit back and hope for the best. So far even the deep state has lost some of its aura of invincibility to the Trump onslaught, although it is fighting back, stacking the White House upper echelons with national security state first responders (McMaster, Mattis, Kelly), and may yet have the last word.


The distinctive essence of American republicanism is a distrust of reason on an individual basis combined with a confidence in reason on the level of collective national action. That is the idea of checks and balances, separation of powers, the friction between equal branches of government, the rule of law, and the electoral powers of the citizenry are acknowledgements that the containment and disciplining of individual power and authority are more important than the efficiency of governance. But maybe confusing the efficiency of capital as embodied in the ideology of neoliberal globalization, ideas of restraint in the Executive Branch have gradually been pushed aside as the urgencies of militarism and geopolitics, as well as the preemptive imperatives of security have taken precedence given the time/space features of modern warfare, both in the form of non-state terrorism or in relation to weaponry of mass destruction.


In other words, the country has been stripped of any basis for confidence in the rationality of the system to check the irrationalities of the individual. This is where Trump entered the scene, somewhat unintentionally delivering a message: the end of republicanism is at hand, despite the Republicans having the upper hand in all three branches of government. The gap between republicans and Republicans has never been greater.


The system is now so flawed that even should the Democrats manage to claw their way back to power the gap would not greatly diminish. The system of republican governance will soon collapse unless the nourishing winds of revolutionary renewal soon arrive.


We should not put all the blame, or alternatively, give all the credit to Trump. An insufficient number of American people failed to identify a threat to the virtues of republican government. Neither political party was oriented toward restoring republicanism under 21st century conditions, which would necessitate at a minimum getting rid of nuclear weapons, insisting on Congressional participation in relation to acts of war, safeguarding the national interest by rejecting ‘special relationships’ with Saudi Arabia and Israel, conforming gun control to the true and sensible meaning of the Second Amendment, heeding the call of Black Lives Matter, leading the struggle against global warming, strengthening the UN and respect for international law, relying on ideas of common security, human security, protection of the poor, restorative diplomacy to address threats and disempower adversaries rather than coercive and militarized diplomacy, pursuing global justice by taking the suffering of others seriously, and dealing humanely with the crises of global migration and prolonged refugee status. In other words, the renewal of republicanism requires a new agenda, and undoubtedly requiring a new constitutional convention, and a constitution that might alone give republicanism a second chance.


In the meantime, Trump and Trumpism tell us more vividly than we could possibly have imagined about the collapse of 18th century republicanism, and the inability of the system to evolve to meet fundamental changes associated with a globalizing reality that shrinks time and space while stimulating a reactionary politics of ultra-nationalism, territoriality, and ‘gated national communities.’ We need to ask what are system requirements for 21st rationality in the designing of governance structures at all levels of human endeavor.


In my view, an ethics of human solidarity and empathy has never been more closely correlated with a politics of human survival, which itself is tied to the urgency of ecological sensitivity to our natural surroundings, including a dangerously deferred implementation of animal rights. When the American Constitution was formulated the guidance of reason was an inspired means to construct a durable government that balanced contradictory goals (admittedly incorporating a gross type of moral blindness in the form of slavery and the rights of native Americans), but now the path to a humane and sustainable future must be built on ethical and ecological foundations in which values are given priority over reason and rationality.


The odiousness of Trump’s presidency gives the people of America what might be their last chance to achieve political redemption for themselves, and for others now and in the future who will drawn into the circle of extreme victimization unless this dynamic of renewal suddenly takes hold.          


5 Responses to “The Flawed and Corrupted Genius of American Republicanism”

  1. anisioluiz2008 October 15, 2017 at 12:53 am #

    Reblogged this on O LADO ESCURO DA LUA.

  2. Yanique Joseph October 15, 2017 at 11:35 am #

    One of the most eloquent and comprehensive critiques of the corrupt Republican Party and the need for a broad multi-issue and multi-racial movement in the U.S. Please also see:

    20 of America’s top political scientists gathered to discuss our democracy. They’re scared.
    “If current trends continue for another 20 or 30 years, democracy will be toast.”

    Talks at this conference can be heard on YouTube

    How Do Democracies Fall Apart (And Could it Happen Here)? Yale University

  3. Laurie Knightly October 17, 2017 at 1:07 pm #

    Certainly humanity needs a system of moral principles that would by their defining achieve a just society. What goes wrong? Reference was made to a ‘republic’ – ie nations or states where citizens elect representatives to manage the government. To assure equitable representation among states, we got the Electoral College and unending distrust/confusion.

    As to ‘values having priority over reason and rationality’ – one might want to ponder that a bit. Values are not ethical principles, conceptually, but are about worth – too often monetary.
    People all over the world are killing each other over differences in values. They appear to want tribal fiefdoms but that will not stop the power struggles. Why don’t all lives matter?

    A few examples , 1 We abolished slavery. And conscripted 10 million young men to fight WW2 – a bloody conflict to which they were not connected. 2. We ruled against unfair hiring practices. And instituted affirmative action. 3. We stopped racial segregation and cheered when children were not to be prevented from attending their neighborhood schools. And then we transported white children into other neighborhoods.

    But we are against collective punishment.

  4. Beau Oolayforos October 17, 2017 at 4:42 pm #

    Dear Professor Falk,

    What seems most concerning to me is when you mention the triumvirate around Trump, saying that ‘they may yet have the last word.’ We are in the unfortunate position of looking to military men to MODERATE a civilian president. Will we be relieved when they finally do take over? Will martial law then follow? Most of the groundwork has already been laid. “Seven Days in May” might have been prophetic, but it seems archaic – nowadays, the takeover might well be cheered on by a gratefully duped populace.

  5. mal October 18, 2017 at 7:44 am #

    Madison, Wisconsin—There is in Wisconsin a warning of what you note is the coming demise of the Republic. In Wisconsin, Republicans can win a bare majority of votes in mid-term elections for governor, though likely not in 2018 when Gov Scott Walker runs for reelection. In our case here a Scott Walker who promised a billionaire, Diane Hendricks, in 2011 on video he would turn Wisconsin into a “Red State” means the same thing as dismantling a Republic by among other inflictions deflating the citizenry. Walker’s Red State agenda on which he did not run, and would not date to run, includes historic cuts to the University of Wisconsin System, public education, protection for clean water, voter obstruction, increasing the number of prisons, targeting Madison and Milwaukee, targeting black and brown citizens, degrading local control of government, targeting women’s’ right to choose, closing the state capitol and erecting an armed camp in 2011, implementing restrictions against free speech in the Capitol, (an effort ruled unconstitutional and beaten in State Circuit and Fed District court), giving Big Ag free run at water, making a $3 billion public expenditure to the Taiwanese corp, Foxconn, and so on.

    We have to fight for the Republic by being rational actors en masse and as single citizens. But, and I think this is suggested in your piece, we also have to be good, by which I mean becoming effective and smart political actors and communicators with classical liberal values. The Democratic Party of Wisconsin is not good. Dems are a club that never really bothers anyone here except their email In Box, but are not effective actors to fight Republicans. Democratic state legislative and Congressional staff are not good. They want their $30,000-plus salaries with benes and consider themselves lucky; don’t rock the boat and never publicly criticize other Dems is their creed. Silence and incompetence are rewarded; patronage prevails. Super-delegates who imposed Hillary Clinton are not good. There is a majority of the Wisconsin electorate and the American electorate who would back an aggressive, renewed politics exemplified by Bernie Sanders who destroyed Hillary Clinton here in the April 2016 pres primary in a record turn-out, if only the Democratic Party win join the fight. The Republic is not a spectator sport.

    [Here is one example of Democratic incompetence in one critical race, the Wisconsin Supreme Court race between Rebecca Bradley, (a rightwing tool, funky, and Walker appointee), and the well-regarded jurist, JoAnne Kloppenburg. Kloppenburg’s campaign manager was a Dem Party functionary noted for communications and electoral incompetence. The election was held on the presidential primary day, April 2016. Now, a smart and agile political operative and campaign team would have been flooding phones and social media with communications of endorsements from Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders: Bernie and Hillary Say: “Vote for Kloppenburg; we need this race.” But not here Wisconsin. Kloppenburg lost by 94,000 votes, with some 155,597 under-votes for the Court race vis a vis the pres primary. Kloppenburg could have and should have won this race. Now, we have a 5-2 rightist majority on the Wisc Supreme Court who will rule for Republican interests every time, ignoring the Wisconsin Constitution, the rule of law, everything a Court is supposed to stand for. I can state for an empirical fact that most Court-race undervotes came from those casting votes for Sanders and Clinton in Dane and Milwaukee counties in which young and minority residents skipped the Court race after standing in line for too long.]

    In Racine this week a MSNBC journalist interviewed five Democratic-leaning voters and asked about the state of the Democratic party nationally. One young gentleman, Terrance Warthen, said: “I don’t know who the Democratic Party is. I just don’t know who they are anymore.”

    Yes. See:

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